Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Troubled sport thrown into fresh turmoil by allegations against John Higgins

To understand the penetrative, long-term impact of the allegations of frame-fixing that have dealt professional snooker a potentially mortal blow, one need only talk with Steve Davis, the sport’s greatest ambassador.
On the verge of tears after allegations that John Higgins, the world champion, was prepared to accept a six-figure bribe, Davis said: “After this, if Barry Hearn isn’t allowed to continue as WPBSA chairman, I’ll have to seriously consider my future in the game.” This from a veteran who has always maintained that voluntary retirement is unthinkable, so deep is his love of all things green baize.
The black Davis mood was created by the acrid stench that can only emerge from a high-profile alleged betting scandal, especially one that came to light on the eve of the World Snooker Championship final, the sport’s showpiece occasion. “My thoughts as a player, it’s the darkest day I’ve ever experienced,” Davis, 52, said. “I’m gobsmacked. The integrity of the game has been put in question. It’s at the lowest ebb it’s ever been.”
Hearn spoke to a tearful Higgins yesterday and said afterwards: “As much as I would class John as a nice guy, the game is at stake here.” Asked if Higgins could play again in the future if found guilty, Hearn said: “I think it would be a real problem for him.”

For a sport in need of renewed and additional television revenue, and desperate to attract new sponsorship income, such a story is poisonous.Hearn, who took over as chairman of the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association (WPBSA) in December, said he was “absolutely mortified” by allegations that Higgins, three times the world champion, and Pat Mooney, his manager, agreed to manipulate the outcome of four frames in future minor events.
Higgins and Mooney, who was a WPBSA director until his resignation yesterday, were filmed by the News of the World, allegedly agreeing to accept £261,000 in return for frame manipulation.
Higgins and Mooney claim they are innocent and there is no suggestion or accusation that Higgins has ever thrown a match or been involved in any fraudulent activity during an 18-year professional career in which he has collected more than £5 million in prize money.
“Today is the start of the biggest match of my life,” Higgins said. “It’s not the World Championship that’s at stake, it’s something even more important, my reputation. I will fully co-operate with the snooker authorities.”
The News of the World has video evidence of a meeting with Higgins and Mooney that took place in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, on Friday. Higgins claims he was “really spooked” by what he thought were members of the Russian mafia, a sentiment echoed by Mooney. “I have never deliberately missed a shot, never mind intentionally lost a frame or a match,” Higgins said. “My conscience is 100 per cent clear.”
Yet regardless of where innocence or guilt may lie, Davis and Hearn are convinced that the whole sorry affair, and its timing, have caused immense damage for snooker, which given its recent financial and perception problems can ill afford such a hit.
There have been several betting furores in modern snooker history, but none has featured anyone as internationally recognisable as Higgins.
Many will be relieved that Hearn, who showed decisive leadership by quickly suspending Higgins from all WPBSA tournaments, is remaining at the helm after an initial period of soul-searching when the story surfaced. “I’m not prepared to see the sport die under this type of publicity,” he said. “I know in my heart of hearts I can put those things right. My first reaction was to walk away, but the second was ‘no, this means something to me’.
“So I’m staying and dealing with it, but I’m going to take it very seriously.We at the top of the game have a responsibility and my message to fans is that this is not going ruin our game.”
David Douglas, a former Metropolitan Police detective chief superintendent who was invited by Hearn to sit on the WPBSA board for his disciplinary input, will head the disciplinary inquiry.
One positive is the reaction of Fred Done, chairman of Betfred, the World Championship sponsor. “If Barry wants to do another five-year deal I will sign now,” he said. “I will continue supporting snooker and I’m confident the WPBSA will conduct a proper and thorough investigation.”
In February 2006, Quinten Hann, of Australia, was banned by the WPBSA for eight years after a similar undercover operation by The Sun revealed he had offered to throw his opening match against Ken Doherty in the 2005 China Open.
Although the match was subsequently played properly, after undercover reporters pulled out of the deal, a WPBSA disciplinary panel was shown transcripts and video footage of meetings between Hann and journalists in March and April 2005.
Hann was found to be in breach of the WPBSA’s rule 2.8, which states: “A member shall not directly or indirectly solicit, attempt to solicit or accept any payment or any form of remuneration or benefit in exchange for influencing the outcome of any game of snooker or billiards.”
Davis, who beat Higgins 13-11 in the second round of the championship nine days ago, put it succinctly. “How horrible a thought that from now on every time we miss a shot or make a mistake, someone who thinks there’s something going on will say, ‘I told you so,’ ” he said.
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